Developer: Lightbox Interactive/SCE Santa Monica Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: Single player campaign, 2 player split-screen survival mode, 32 player online play.
Anyone who played Warhawk would have to be impressed by its hectic yet smooth online-only play, but like me probably longed for a more considered, plot-driven solo campaign as well. Starhawk, the sequel, is a very different game and includes the addition of a single-player story mode.
Set in a bleak, almost Wild West-like future, where humans have colonized planets throughout the galaxy, an unlimited power source known as Rift Energy has been discovered, and some rift energy miners (known as Rifters) have become exposed dangerous levels of the Rift Energy, which mutated them into savage creatures known as Outcasts. The story is told in a cel-shaded comic book style, not dissimilar to inFamous’s narrative style.
Bands of the Outcasts have attacked Rifter mining sites, including a farm owned by brothers Emmett and Logan Graves. With their mining rig destroyed, both brothers were exposed to huge levels of uncontained Rift Energy. The older brother Logan mutated into an Outcast, but, thanks to his friend Sydney Cutter, Emmett (the playable character) is able to keep the Outcast mutation process at bay and remain human by having a regulator implanted into his spine. He does however show obvious signs of over-exposure to Rift energy, as it breaks through the skin of his right arm and makes his eyes glow bright blue. Using his ability to harness Rift energy Emmett and Cutter become hired gunslingers who travel from planet to planet to space station to asteroid protecting Rifter mining sites from Outcast raiders. After a battle in a town called White Sands on a desert planet aptly called ‘Dust’ they discover that this particular band of raiders was led by a notorious Outcast known as the Outlaw, who turns out to be none other than Emmett’s brother Logan.
Whether offline solo or online, the gameplay is similar to Warhawk, but set in a very different, non-militaristic universe. Within seconds of starting you realize that Starhawk is an exceedingly good-looking game with vast draw distances and a remarkable amount of on-screen action that displays no slowdown whatsoever. The story campaign consists of 10 sizeable missions spread across different planets and settings in space.
A new game mechanic called "Build n' Battle" allows the player to use gathered Rift energy to build structures such as bunkers, defensive walls, turrets, sniper towers, vehicle bays, launch pads and armories in the midst of battle against the numerous Outcasts, making the game feel as much like an RTS (real-time strategy) as an all-action TPS (third-person shooter). Build n’ Battle (it’s a LOT cooler than it sounds, honest) works by holding the triangle button down which pulls up the select menu wheel. As long as you have enough Rift energy and Cutter has them in stock you can order down any of the following up to a limit of 32 structures:
• A Razorback attack ATV or Ox 6-wheeled Heavy tank.
• Linkable Walls that can be modified into gates or have Autoturrets set atop them.
• A.R.M. vehicle repair station.
• Armed Outpost where allies can spawn.
• Supply Bunker with rifle and rocket launcher + ammo.
• Watchtower complete with sniper rifles.
• Vulture jump-jet pack that gets you around and to higher places quickly and nimbly, but has a limited overheat time meaning you have to be careful where you’re flying to.
• Hawk mech that can stomp around on the ground or take to the skies or space.
• Beam turret (automated weapon that is particularly effective as anti-air defence or anti-vehicle).
• Shield generator (multiplayer only).
As with Warhawk, the main multiplayer game is an impressive 32-player online battle, but Starhawk also has a 2-player co-operative survival mode similar to Gears of War’s standard-setting Horde mode, sadly there’s no campaign co-op though.
The multiplayer game consists of 10 large bespoke maps that resemble settings from the solo game, and require many of the weapon and vehicle skills that are best learned in the campaign. Starhawk requires the now annoyingly familiar online pass code to play online (which means you can’t just ‘try’ it if you rent the game unless you buy a pass), but there is an impressive split-screen co-op survival mode that has 5 maps of its own set in locations from the solo campaign. The split-screen mode works quite well on a large screen TV (we reviewed the game on a 42” screen), with slightly cut-down view screens to allow for two on-screen maps, but does, unsurprisingly, suffer from frame rate problems on the odd occasion when the action gets particularly manic. Even if you haven’t tried an online multiplayer or co-op survival game before, Starhawk is a good place to start. Only Battlefield 3 and Starhawk’s precursor Warhawk supply huge, raging battles packed with vehicles, close-up firefight combat and explosions aplenty, and I think Starhawk does it best of all. Voice communications aren’t vital, but really help in any team game, especially when there are objectives to be completed. It’s a shame Sony didn’t take this opportunity to give away a Blue Tooth headset with a game and really encourage PS3 gamers to play an online game like Xbox Live players do, with plenty of banter as well as helpful in-game chat. Starhawk’s impressive multiplayer mode is so good that it deserves as much clan support as any game on PS3.
Now for some moans. Maybe I’m just being fussy but there’s gravity in the vacuum of space and Emmett needs no helmet to breathe? If you 'stop' the Hawk (circle button) you just plunge downwards, and there is no ‘down’ in space, so why can’t you just stop the Hawk and hang there and enjoy the view, get your bearings or act like a gun turret for a while? The Hawk is a difficult craft to master as it flies at a set minimum speed, and you can only slow it down to a certain velocity, it won’t stop and hover. Locking on missiles with ‘L1’ and trying to fly slower by pressing the ‘L2’ brake feels clunky and ham-fisted at best, and the buttons can’t be mapped to a more logical layout. Another thing is the gathering of Rift energy, remnants of which are simply attracted to Emmett whenever he kills an enemy. Another source is stores of Rift barrels that have to be shot in order to collect the energy from them. Surely they could have thought of a more elegant way of gathering energy? You also need to shoot the Outcast enemies with a ridiculous number of rounds before they die, even on the default difficulty setting, the main assault rifle type weapon seems to have been 'nerfed' to death. All small gripes and none of them are game enders, but they mar what is otherwise a hugely enjoyable game.
In terms of looks, gameplay and style Starhawk is a lot Warhawk, a bit inFamous and a bit Red Faction Guerrilla. To be honest I wasn’t overly enamoured with Emmett as a main character and the plot left me asking a lot of questions-I prefer my sci-fi to have a bit more ‘sci’ to it. The campaign is also a bit short, I finished it easily in less than 6 hours on “Hard” and there are no collectibles to go back and play again for, so no replay value unless you want to clear up certain trophies. But Starhawk is unquestionably a fabulous-looking blaster that will both test your reactions and skills and make you think a bit too, because the strategy element (using your Rift energy wisely and calling in the right equipment in the right place) really can make winning what appear to be, impossibly fierce battles not only winnable, but easy.